Self settling: Babies are not manipulators



“He’s got you wrapped around his little finger.”
“She’ll never learn if you do whatever she demands.”
“He needs to learn to self settle.”

These are phrases every new parent is inundated with by well-meaning strangers. Despite the journey to becoming parents being one filled with much anticipation and joyful excitement, we live in a world that seemingly undervalues normal physiological behaviour in babies, and places way too much emphasis on the quest for them to be independent in their own entities. We are warned of creating “bad habits” with our children by being there for them when they need us; and we are chastised for wanting our babies in our beds near us at night time or for feeding overnight.

But here’s the thing. Babies are not manipulators.

They cry for a reason, and they stop crying when picked up for a reason. And the reason is – this is the biological norm, and they aren’t “tricking” their parents into their doing their bidding just for kicks.

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, a Psychologist specialising in childhood development supports this.

“Babies and toddlers have a hugely underdeveloped neocortex in comparison to an adult’s brain, this frontal section of the brain, responsible for rational and analytical thought as well as the regulation of emotional responses, means that they do not yet possess the skill of emotional self-regulation, or as the sleep trainers like to call it the skill of ‘self-soothing’. The ‘self-soothing’ referred to in mainstream books is anything but that, it is a myth – a myth perpetuated to make parents feel better about ignoring their baby’s needs. The real key to boost emotional self-regulation in an infant is to be responsive to him when he needs it, so that in time, when the brain connectivity matures it will hard-wire the pathways necessary for true ‘self-soothing’.”

Our children have grown inside us for many many months, the mother and child growing together as one. We have felt them move inside us and we have seen them respond to our voices and daily habits. But as soon as we have birthed our babies earth side we are encouraged, by mainstream media, to “teach” them how to somehow not “need” us.

But they DO need us

Mother and baby are a conjoined unit, a biological dyad. When a baby cries it’s because they have a need that isn’t being met, and they have no other way to communicate this need. They settle when they’re close to our chest in our arms or at the breast because that is what their innate need is requiring, at the very core. They aren’t being manipulative. They’re being a baby, doing what a baby does.

Media and mainstream marketing engineers are the cause for creating the idea that we need to have children who are quiet and self-soothing at night time, not evolutionary biology. Before certain sleep “experts” came along with their advice on how to get our children to submit to us, basic human anthropology taught us that night waking is not only normal but it serves as an instinctual protective mechanism for infants and their survival.

Dr James McKenna, a leading expert on Paediatric sleep, not only recognises the importance of the mother-baby dyad, he supports the practice of co-sleeping and claims that it holds key benefits for infant development and survival.

Cry-it-out doesn’t teach your baby to self-soothe

“Above all else, keep in mind that babies have no agendas; they are not trying to make it hard on you, or manipulate you. With such an undeveloped little brain, they are about as close to their genes as any human will ever get and have little control over their behaviour. In their first six to seven months of life, babies have no “wants,” only needs. Keep in mind that babies are as much “victims” of their behaviour as you might be,” he states.

It has been scientifically proven that when a baby is left to cry for an extended period of time, their cortisol levels increase and this can have detrimental long-term effects on the child which may not be evident until later in life. (Henry & Wang 1998). They don’t learn to self-settle, they learn that the people who are supposed to be there to care for them with love and comfort don’t care anymore – so they give up.

Evolutionary attachment theory

John Bowlby was a psychoanalyst who formulated an evolutionary theory of attachment that supports the concept that children come into our world biologically pre-conditioned to form attachments with others as a means for survival. At the very core, babies are born with the base need to find a secure attachment to their main caregiver that acts as their secure “base” to explore their world. Babies need to form a secure attachment to their primary caregiver before they can gradually become independent in their own identity. Secure dependence from a baby to their primary caregiver is what comes before a healthy sense of independence is formed.

How can a child form a secure base to their primary caregiver when the primary caregiver is encouraged to leave them to cry and learn to cope on their own? Simply, they can’t. This idea goes against nature and not only creates stress and harm for the mother-baby unit, it is scientifically refuted and incorrect.

McKenna phrases it best: “The worst invention culturally for all parents was the notion of the “good baby.” Good babies don’t exist because that supports the notion that only babies who sleep through the night and can self-settle are good. We know that isn’t true.

Mamas out there: I implore you – hold your babies

Do not feel any shame or guilt in going to them whenever they cry and don’t ever hesitate to comfort them however you can when they’re unhappy. You aren’t teaching them any bad habits, however you are reinforcing their connection and bond with you, setting them up to be well adjusted and happy grown ups. It is normal for babies to wake often, it is normal for babies to want to be frequently breastfed, it is normal for babies to want to be held often.

Your child isn’t manipulating you and you’re not making any rod for your back. You’re simply being a present, conscious parent.